Chinese Grand Prix: Ricciardo pulls off a Shanghai surprise

Super-fly guy: Daniel Ricciardo in exhuberant form after a stunning drive to victory in the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix
Super-fly guy: Daniel Ricciardo in exhuberant form after a stunning drive to victory in the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix

It goes down in history as a barnstorming F1 win for Daniel Ricciardo but the truth is that the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix should have been won by Max Verstappen. Or Valtteri Bottas. Or Sebastian Vettel.

This was a race that came alive midway through, thanks to a Safety Car that put team strategists centre-stage, and thanks to some memorable on-the-edge manoeuvres by the Red Bull pair – some of which turned out rather better than others.

The Red Bull rampage

I see a little pirouette of a man: Verstappen sends himself and Vettel spinning out of contention at the Chinese GP
I see a little pirouette of a man: Verstappen sends himself and Vettel spinning out of contention at the Chinese GP

While hopes had been high that Verstappen and Ricciardo could challenge for a podium position this weekend, qualifying left them fifth and sixth, not much slower than the Mercedes pair but with a only a modest chance of any glory.

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Midway through the race, Verstappen was running in a creditable third and Ricciardo was fifth, when that Safety Car was triggered (after a ‘misunderstanding’ saw Toro Rosso hero Pierre Gasly blot his F1 copybook by crashing into team-mate Brendon Hartley at the hairpin).

Red Bull rolled the dice. They called both drivers in for soft tyres, losing them both a place in the process but giving them a big pace advantage once things got going again.

And how they got going.

Verstappen was suddenly on for a big result. He charged up to Hamilton, harrying him once, twice then … dink! They made contact as Verstappen tried a (pretty unrealistic) overtake around the outside and the Dutchman ran off the track as a result.

His head was still in the shed just three laps later when, having managed to pass Hamilton, Verstappen now hit Vettel at the hairpin, sending both cars into a gentle, synchronised pirouette. Vettel’s car was damaged in the bump but Verstappen’s reputation was more battered, and he was handed a ten-second penalty and a couple of points on his licence as a result. He said sorry later – maybe he is learning.

That penalty pushed his fourth-place finish down to fifth, and promoted Hamilton to fourth after the Brit’s deeply unsatisfying weekend.

That’s three races in a row where Verstappen’s all-in approach has cost him dearly. He’s forfeited 30 points, maybe more, and could, with a following breeze, have been an unlikely but welcome Championship leader; instead of which, he’s stuck in eighth, behind Hulkenberg and Alonso, having been called a d*** by Hamilton, been punished by stewards, having to apologise for his driving and, one suspects, coming to the realisation that there’s a huge difference between fearless F1 driving and foolhardy F1 driving.

Pay attention, Max, as Daniel schools you

Shoe-in: There were tears, laughter and the inevitable ‘shooey’ of champagne on the podium for race winner Daniel Ricciardo
Shoe-in: There were tears, laughter and the inevitable ‘shooey’ of champagne on the podium for race winner Daniel Ricciardo

If you want to see the difference between fearless and foolhardy, look only as far as Red Bull’s hero of the weekend, Ricciardo.

After a miserable series of results, featuring gremlins galore, Ricciardo’s sixth-place start in China looked to have frozen him out of a podium finish.

But Ricciardo is in a class of one when it comes to capitalising on unexpected opportunities.

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That Red Bull pitstop had given him and Max the upperhand and, as Max squandered his opportunity not once but twice in quick succession, the Aussie was stepping in to show us how it should be done.

Those new soft tyres, coupled with Ricciardo’s peerless gift as the beast of the braking zone, saw him rapidly scythe his way into first position.

While he breezed past Vettel’s wounded Ferrari, Ricciardo’s overtakes of both Mercedes were things of beauty or terror, depending on your view of controlled, aggressive overtaking.

As he edged up on Hamilton, on lap 40, it looked like he would be passing the Brit in a lap or two – instead of which, we saw a classic Ricciardo pass, the overtaking move starting from so far behind Hamilton that the gap was measured in lunar cycles rather than milliseconds.

Ricciardo stormed up the inside of Hamilton, without losing control, and despatched the champion with a manoeuvre that had his team boss Christian Horner cheering like a loon and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff trying but failing to look nonchalant.

Ricciardo’s pass on Bottas was even more hair-raising – another late, late bit of braking and, as Bottas moved a little in the braking zone, it looked like this might end badly.

But credit to both drivers, Ricciardo again kept control of his car and made the corner, while Bottas did what he could, despite being on far inferior rubber.

As a side note, the three men on the podium have three of the most desired drives in F1 and, with Ricciardo out of contract at Red Bull this year, there’s no doubt that he’ll be in one of those seats next year. The question is, which one?

Today was his sixth win in F1, and every one of those wins has come from a start outside the top three – he may not be quite as quick as Verstappen in some eyes but he is still incredibly rapid, and his racecraft is pretty special. Which team will help him to his first Drivers’ Championship..?

The mystery of Mercedes’ missing mojo

Finns can only get better: Finnish pair Valtteri Bottas (left) and Kimi Raikkonen (right) put on a brave, if glum, face as Daniel Ricciardo enjoys the podium with Red Bull race engineer Chris Gent
Finns can only get better: Finnish pair Valtteri Bottas (left) and Kimi Raikkonen (right) put on a brave, if glum, face as Daniel Ricciardo enjoys the podium with Red Bull race engineer Chris Gent

Hamilton had another poor weekend and, whether that was down to him, the car or a combination of both remains to be seen – but this is a circuit at which Mercedes have utterly dominated over the last decade.

Of more concern to Mercedes fans was yet another race of troubling team strategy.

During the first round of pitstops, Mercedes played a blinder. Bottas came in for fresh tyres on lap 19, a full three seconds behind leader Vettel.

Just one lap later, Vettel pitted as well – only to rejoin behind Bottas, thanks to that pitstop call and a cracking outlap from the Finnish driver.

It looked like job done for Mercedes.

But then came that Safety Car and, while Red Bull could take their chance by double-stacking their drivers for new tyres, Mercedes played it ultra-safe and left their drivers out …

All manner of excuses can be made for that decision but, when it comes to tyres, the cardinal rule is to be on the right rubber at the right moment.

Mercedes were on the wrong rubber for 37 laps. End of.

I said at the beginning of the season that Mercedes’ biggest challenge might well be keeping the fire in their bellies, having proved so much and dominated so impressively in recent seasons.

Their ultra-conservative approach to race strategy (and they are not alone in this, are they Ferrari?) speaks to the withering of that dominance and, as of yet, Hamilton has not been able to make up for this issue. Perhaps the Mercedes car is another ‘diva’ with its tyres, perhaps Ferrari really do have the edge.

Don’t get me wrong, the Brackley team still have a tiny lead in the Constructors’ Championship and it would be utter madness to write them off.

It’s just that, this season, they look, well, a bit human.

And, for the record, the China result marks the first time since hybrid engines were introduced, way back in 2014, that Mercedes have gone three F1 races without a win.

Kimi, back on Ferrari’s sacrificial altar as usual

Club Kimi: Raikkonen had the most vociferous fans at the Shanghai circuit – but they endured another frustrating day as he was sacrificed to help Vettel
Club Kimi: Raikkonen had the most vociferous fans at the Shanghai circuit – but they endured another frustrating day as he was sacrificed to help Vettel

And so to Ferrari. The story of their weekend was an impressive qualification run, where Raikkonen looked to have the edge right up until Vettel’s final lap stuck him on pole.

The German looked to be a good bet for the race win until the first round of pitstops, which allowed Bottas into the lead.

Then Verstappen intervened, clattering Vettel completely out of contention.

Meanwhile, Raikkonen had yet again been used to try to help Vettel back into contention, in vain.

In other words, it was all going pretty well until the pitstop phase. Which means Ferrari are still losing out in the strategy department – it’s not as if this is a new problem for the Maranello outfit but, in modern F1, brawn without brains isn’t going to bring the glittering prizes.

Ferrari had the qualifying pace, Ferrari had the race pace, Ferrari had the front of the grid locked out.

Whatever excuses are made, third and eighth make for a pretty rubbish result, all things considered, and are a wasted opportunity for a team hoping to take both F1 titles this season.

Elsewhere in the F1 circus…

Tangerine scream: Fernando Alonso on his way to another points finish, at the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix
Tangerine scream: Fernando Alonso on his way to another points finish, at the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix

Renault continued their quiet improvement, Nico Hulkenberg finishing a satisfying sixth.

Just behind him was Fernando Alonso, keeping that McLaren in the points whatever clouds of depression were descending on the team this week. In the closing stages of the race, it was encouraging to see Alonso battling with Vettel, even if the Ferrari was battle-scarred.

A shout-out, too, to Kevin Magnussen, scoring a single but significant F1 point for Haas, as the American outfit squeezed the Force Indias out of the top-ten.

Last word goes to Ricciardo. Asked about his aggressive dive down the inside of Bottas – the Finn elbowed aside in his 100th grand prix by the man who could replace him next season – Ricciardo grinned broadly and said: ‘Sometimes you just gotta lick the stamp and send it..!’

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